Tag: Globetrotting

21Mar

‘Cause There’s Beauty in the Breakdown

[Photo of the first sunset of spring over the walls of Assisi]

In nearly thirteen years of marriage, Dan and I have moved five times and have lived out of suitcases three different summers. Each time we gear up for a new transition, I read a book about decluttering to try to offset my frugal “But we might need that someday!” impulse with the pure glee of tossing items I will no longer need to dust, iron, or trip over in the storage closet. This time, I picked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up because I like being approximately a year late to online parties and also because I wanted to start using the phrase “This does not spark joy” every time my alarm goes off in the morning.

Yes, we’re headed for change once again. In an attempt to out-epic all previous summers, we will be living from suitcases for a few months while we catch up with loved ones and eat our weight in fresh salsa in the States, and then we’ll be moving from our little Umbrian city to the sprawling metropolis of Milan.

More of our heartstrings are caught up in this move than in others before it. Perugia has been our home for the last nine years. It’s the city we know best in the world, and it’s almost impossible to imagine no longer getting coffee at the bar up the street or going for runs at the park down the hill. When Natalie and I attended junior high orientation last month, I hovered Mission Impossible-style above the surface of grief, trying to modulate my emotions so I wouldn’t make a scene in front of all the friends and neighbors we are about to leave. The girls are taking it even harder.

We have a host of compelling reasons for the move though, and our sadness at leaving our current home is woven inextricably with happiness about our new one. Work and church and family await us in Milan, and the fact that we’ll be able to see the Alps on a clear day doesn’t hurt either. We know with certainty that it’s time for us to move on.

This brings me back to decluttering. I’m going through our clothes and books and knickknacks trying to determine what will bring value and joy to our life in Milan and what would only be a weight. I’m no natural at this, mind you. I fretted earnestly this morning over throwing out threadbare socks that I haven’t worn in years. (We won’t discuss the shoe situation at all, thank you kindly.) The biggest item I’ve had to evaluate, however, took only a quarter hour of soul-searching before I admitted that it has been dousing me in self-reproach rather than sparking my joy like it used to do. As Marie Kondo would say, this blog has served its purpose for me and deserves to be let go with respect.

I can’t tell you how reluctant I am to put an official stop to this writing that I’ve kept up off and on since 2002. Blogging has given me a voice when I’ve felt most alone and has connected me to priceless communities of people. This is where I’ve chronicled the early years of parenthood and the complicated shifts in my faith. So much of who I am is poured into this online space where so many of you have invested as well.

Our self-employment contracts have increased dramatically over the last year though, and my busyness is only going to ramp up over the coming months. I’ve caught myself many times wanting to spend a precious free hour working on a writing project with deep significance to me and then remembering that I haven’t blogged in ages, reasoning that I should get this up to date before tackling any other project, and ultimately giving up on the idea of writing at all that day. It’s become a lead-plated cycle of dispassion and guilt, a far cry from the creative outlet that blogging used to be.

I want to say goodbye to Perugia well, and I want to start our new life in Milan well. Holding onto this blog for old times’ sake will help me do neither. Therefore, with an almost exact blend of the excitement and heartache I feel about our upcoming move, I’m publishing this as my final post here.

Thank you all for the time you’ve invested in my blog. I can’t thank you enough for your friendship, and I’d love it if you continued to keep in touch on Instagram (@bethany_bassett) where I will be documenting every funny misadventure of the coming months. Here’s to spring and to hard-good changes and to bestseller buzz phrases that nevertheless lead to joy.

With much love,
Bethany

2Oct

Going Medieval

One sleepy Sunday morning two summers ago, we were driving through central Italy with friends when one of them asked to stop by a pharmacy. We pulled into the nearest town, though we weren’t sure if we would find any pharmacies open on a Sunday. What we certainly didn’t expect to find were barricades across every road leading to the town center. Our curiosity up, we parked on the outskirts and walked the five minutes to the city center (this is central Italy, after all) where we found an open pharmacy after all, plus seven hundred more barricades and a chatty barista who filled us in on what was happening.

We learned that we’d just happened to pull into Bettolle (“Bay-TOLL-ay”) on the one day each year when they commemorate the burning of their castle by a rival town and their subsequent reconstruction in the 16th century. Following lunch, the town would be gathering in the main square for a medieval parade, after which teams from the five town districts would compete in a Race of Revenge. In this race, teams of two must run laps around the historic town center balancing huge wooden urns on stretchers. Then, competitors dressed in man-tights must race to climb greased 5-meter-high poles and put out the fires burning on top.

We didn’t stick around for the festivities, but I later read the day’s results in a local magazine:

“There was a winner. Maybe two. In fact there are some who say there were three winning districts. Others say nobody won. Others, instead, insist that to be beaten is now a dried-up technicality of the rules which are too intricate and groundless and which don’t take into account the possible uncertain results that are inevitable in such a complicated race.”

A more Italian summary there never was.

Our region of Umbria is full of ancient hillside towns that celebrate their heritage with similar events, and the four of us finally got to attend one this last weekend. Friends from the nearby town of Gualdo invited us to their Giochi de le Porte on the condition that we cheer for their district and that Dan wear tights for the opening parade. (Sadly, I could not be there on Friday to see this magnificence.)

As charmed and delighted as I am by the idea of these events, I was wary going into the weekend. You may recall from previous stories such as that time the number machine at the health center broke and that time the national soccer team played in our neighborhood that crowd mentality in Italy causes a particular strain of strain for me. I am an introvert and an American; my personal space bubble is dear to me. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to spending my Saturday and Sunday getting up close and personal with strangers’ elbows, and had I known that a passerby would additionally lock me in a full-on boob grab, I might not have had the will to show up. (I’m still shuddering.) However, if I hadn’t braved the crowds, then I would have missed out on one of the most colorful and captivating experiences of our eight years in Italy.

Banners and crowds 1 Read More »

27Aug

Wherever You Go

I didn’t mean to fall off the face of the earth… though geographically speaking, we came fairly close this summer. Exactly five weeks ago, I was steaming my waterlogged feet at a campfire in the same Highland glen where Hagrid’s hut, James Bond’s Skyfall estate, and Monty Python’s Bridge of Death were staged. Wind-worn mountains surrounded our tent, their crags still faintly green at midnight. If not for the peaks, we might have been able to spot the Northern Lights. I felt like I was living in a medieval fable, complete with the short, shivering nights and the venison roasted on sticks.

I did not write a single day of our six weeks on the road from Italy to France to home by way of Scotland. I’d intended to, of course. I’d held onto my hope that this half-business/half-pleasure road trip would loosen the time demands clenched around my ribs until I breathed big gusts of words. It turned out, however, that what I had clenched to me were anxieties, and well… you know the saying. Wherever you go…

We drove all the way to the Scottish Highlands, and there I was too.

This has been a hard year, which you may or may not have guessed from the dearth of blog posts around here. The first quarter of 2015 brought the dissolving of three different communities that were dear to our hearts, one isolation lined up after another. I will write about them one day, but I haven’t entirely figured out how to begin processing them within myself. For lack of any more conclusive results (according to a litany of medical tests, I’m fit as a fiddle), I’ve chalked my confusing health issues up to anxiety. I don’t think I’m wrong.

This is a growth spurt year, the kind that moves in drastic lurches and tangled limbs. It aches down to the bone without any obvious cause or cure, and I know we will look different at the end of it even if I can’t imagine the specifics. Truthfully, I can’t even imagine the specifics of next week at this point. My mind is a murmuration of birds shapeshifting in and out of the wind, directed by instinct rather than destination. You’ve heard the motto “Do the next right thing”? It sounds so simple, yet it also assumes you have a single clear direction. What is the next right thing when you’ve fallen off the map?

Generations of soul-searchers before me would answer, “Hit the road!” and we certainly did do that over the span of June and July: eight countries, six campgrounds, two apartments, two hotels, four friends’ houses, 4,100 miles, and a freakish 67°F temperature range that has left me unable to tell whether I’d prefer a fan or a blanket at night. (I’m currently opting for both.) Dan had two different work conferences across Europe, so we packed our car like Tetris wizards and made it a family affair.

We swam in pools, waded rivers, hiked mountains, and invaded every hands-on museum we could find. We went on treasure hunts, followed in the footsteps of Harry Potter, and foraged for our own s’more sticks. We got caught in not one but two transportation strikes and ended up crossing London in a double-decker bus. Completely unrelated to the strikes, we also managed to get ourselves stranded ten miles from our car after a long day at a French theme park. There were bagpipes and goats and crepes and a new tattoo. We ate either croissants or English breakfast every morning because we could. We gained weight, though I am steadfastly refusing to check how much. We forgot what day it was on a regular basis.

Trying not to fall in the pond

Four Bassetts in line 2

Sketching the Eiffel Tower

At the British Museum

Sister snuggle along the Thames

No one died

Scottish swimming hole

Roasting dinner

You can also check out our #franklyscotch trip posts on Instagram.
(France + Scotland = #franklyscotch)

The girls had a blast, though I’m sure they were ready before the end for us to stop referring to every missed bus and rained-out hike as “an adventure.” (Parents gonna parent.) Dan worked like the Energizer Bunny on caffeine and had his mind lit up with possibilities. I vacillated between weightless happiness and abject frustration as the writing-less days slipped by, each one a reminder that travel doesn’t transmogrify us into more capable versions of ourselves. I played hard with my kids and worried hard about what we’d return home to. I was there, and now I’m back here.

I wish I could say what one does with a growth spurt year after the trip has been traveled and the bags unpacked. It seems unfair somehow to return from a long journey without any revelations. Or perhaps that’s my next right thing—to winnow out the wisdom of this summer and let it draw me back to earth, watch it corral my flock of anxieties slowly toward a roost. Growth is no respecter of schedules, after all, any more than it is of geography. This is my gangly attempt at presence then, my place card in the rib-clenching unknown. Wherever in this process we may be, whoever this year is stretching us to be, whatever will emerge from the distances we’ve traveled, here we are.

8Sep

Seastruck

The first time I saw the ocean, I was nearly twelve. Our van crested the bridge to Quintana Beach, and there was the Gulf of Mexico stretched out below us, the vast basin where God must have dipped his brush after painting every color of earth and sky. I couldn’t tell you even now what hue the Gulf of Mexico most resembles. It’s slate gray but also moss green, sky blue capped by cloud crests, equal parts mother of pearl and loam. At first sight, I couldn’t believe such a thing existed—this expanse of creation-colored water curved to fit the horizon. I ate my wedge of watermelon that evening in the waves, salt and grit and who knows what else seasoning its pink flesh. My baby brother threw the van keys into the surf (or so we thought; we found them a week later deep inside one of the bench seats), and we were stranded until nightfall, and it was magical.

Now that I’m a mother, I have an inkling of how my own mother must have felt that night—all six of her children sand-plated and smelling of seaweed, dark tongues of water lapping up the shoreline, my father hitchhiking to find a locksmith, and no cell phone to know when he’d be back, not the tiniest bit of technology with which to distance ourselves from the deep. I also know a bit of how she must have felt when we finally made it to the condo and she still had showers to administer and salt-encrusted towels to dry and the next day’s picnic to prepare. Beach vacations are the parental equivalents of overtime.

But it is paid:

Puglia beach trip 2

We drove down south to Puglia for the first time this month and spent the better part of a week with friends at their beach house. And by “at their house,” I mean on the beach. The Ionian Sea is like liquid topaz, so blue and crystalline that simply looking at it it is a form of wealth. I was in the water about three quarters of the time that the girls were; we dredged up seashells and splashed each other silly and tracked the tiny striped fish who were tracking our toes. The other quarter of the time, I sat back in a nest of sand and filled straight up on my kids’ delight.

Puglia beach trip 3

Puglia beach trip 4

Puglia beach trip 5

Puglia beach trip 6

The sea turns children into hunters and gatherers, architects and archeologists. It draws on their genius for play and holds time at arm’s length so they can stop growing up so fast, at least for the day. It makes magic out of ordinary minutes. Admittedly, magical moments are not necessarily effortless ones, at least not for the parental portion of the family. We came home tired with slightly more than our fair share of sand and sunburns, and my post-vacation laundry pile would have been enough to make even Mrs. Walton faint of heart. I still take the whole experience as a gift though—the chance to play with my girls free of the usual time-claustrophobia that haunts me at home, to watch them at ease in their own childhoods, to see the living sparkle of the waves mirrored in their eyes, and to discover my own sense of seastruck enchantment right there in the context where I first found it.

Puglia beach trip 7

30Jul

Cracking My Shins on Wildflowers

This last Sunday, we went to our church for the first time in two months. “Are the Bassetts actually here today?” one lady asked us, feigning shock. “No,” I said, and we all laughed. I was only half-joking though. I was there, but not all there, and for that, I blame the wildflowers.

Wildflower altar 2

I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World on our vacation earlier this month, but I didn’t make it very far because I kept returning to the first chapter over and over for refills of the same heady draft. The chapter is about cultivating an awareness of God in the world, and in it, Taylor (Brown Taylor? BBT? B to the Bitty?) follows a line of thought that rang at the frequency of my own heart during our time in the Italian Alps:

“What happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees?… Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

Wildflower altar 3

I cracked my shin on an altar pretty much the minute we stepped out of our hotel in Sestriere, an alpine village so far west of Turin that it’s nearly in France. I had to look that last bit up on Google Maps, by the way. My sense of geography is marvelously awful. All I knew of location while we were there was that we had stepped onto the dance floor where earth and sky practice sweeping each other off their feet, and that’s all I cared to know.

Wildflower altar 4

We hiked every day, unable to stay indoors a moment longer than necessary, and while the girls skipped ahead gathering bouquets and improvising marching songs to the tune of “Let It Go,” I planted myself in wildflower meadows. More accurately, my soul planted me there. It wound roots down through my kneecaps and into the ground, anchoring me in a posture to notice flower couture, the stunning individuality of petals, the communion of velvet-trimmed bees, and the extravagance of it all there, untended and largely unseen, the original guerrilla art knit across the mountainside.

Wildflower altar 5

There is no path to reverence quite like realizing you are it—the one guest at the gallery opening, the sole occupant of the chapel, the only human being who will ever brush against this exact strain of beauty. I am the only person in existence, past or future, to photograph those flowers above; even flopped there on my stomach with camera in hand, I couldn’t quite absorb the whole of it. I didn’t need to though. I didn’t even want to, truth be told. For all of my devotion to reason and fact, I still like to take a hit of undiluted awe every once in a while.

Wildflower altar 6

“Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?” BBT asks, prompting a little fist-bump of recognition from my heart. I realize that church is many different things to many different people, but I personally look to it as a mind-elevator—something that will draw my perspective back into the bigger but less visible realm in which God-with-us changes everything. Sometimes actual church accomplishes this, but other times it’s a meal with friends or an act of selflessness or a line of poetry said aloud under the stars or a line of music so lovely I fall straight into it. Or a field of wildflowers hidden up in the Italian Alps just for me to find.

Wildflower altar 7

24Jul

Normal is the New Normal

“I’m going to beat the everloving pants off this whole reentry thing,” I determined last night, laying myself down to sleep at the ridiculously responsible hour of 10:30.

We had been home only a few hours. Seven weeks’ worth of suitcases lay where they had been dropped on our dusty floors. All of my grand plans to keep up with writing throughout our trip were wadded up in one of them, no doubt, wedged somewhere between the dirty hiking pants and the souvenir chocolate. (Because: Switzerland.) I couldn’t see even the faintest, horizon-bleared end of the to-do list in my mind, but it didn’t matter. For once, I was going to prioritize my own post-trip sanity. No more spiraling into the scheduleless void. I would settle back into the cushion of my own blessed mattress, get the best night of sleep I’d had all summer, and wake up early enough to write my way back to normalcy by breakfast.

Cue mischief-portending Danny Elfman track.

At first, I couldn’t sleep. The bed felt strange. I had too many elbows. The sheet was too warm; taking it off was too cold. I dozed off a few times only to wake up in a disoriented panic wondering whose furniture was looming around me in the dark. And where had the door disappeared to? My brain rocked around wildly for a while and then began to settle down for the night. In fact, I was finally making some real headway into sleep when someone began knocking on the bedroom door. A certain six-year-old someone whose brain was cooperating even less than mine.

“I can’t manage to sleep!” wailed Sophie. “What if I never fall asleep? What if I’m awake all night?”

“No, no,” I soothed. “Let’s just get you back to bed. I’m sure you’ll be asleep before you know it.”

Five minutes later… “Go back to bed, honey. You’re not going to fall asleep any more easily by getting up like this.”

Ten minutes after that…“Have you tried counting sheep yet?”

And an hour after that…“Here, just get into bed with me.”

And an hour after that… “Maybe you should try your own bed again.”

The kid didn’t fall asleep until five in the mother flippin’ morning. It was the worst insomnia of my life, and it wasn’t even mine. By the end, I was lurching into her room like a blindfolded zombie to offer grunts that I hoped were conveying equal parts compassion and “Go the F**k to Sleep.”

It goes without saying—though I will anyway—that my pastel-tinted Morning of Rejuvenation did not happen. Dan pried me out of bed with a stiff coffee a little before 10, and I had to remind myself that everything I accomplished from that point on counted as a victory. Toothpaste located and used? Score! Self showered by lunch? Bonus! Vacation laundry sorted and pushed in general direction of washing machine? Fifty points for me!

It hasn’t been the day I’d hoped or planned, but I’m sure there’s a life lesson somewhere in there. Expectations make great target practice, for example, or Children can smell productivity. The truth is that I don’t mind how things turned out in the end. I had to take an adjustment in perspective and an extra coffee or two, but it hasn’t been a bad day. The bags got [mostly] unpacked. The four of us [mostly] enjoyed each other’s company. I’m getting a chance to string some [mostly] coherent sentences together and feeling [mostly] sane to boot. If you consider that the goal for my day was a return to normalcy, then perhaps the unpredictability of normal life, with its dust and insomnia and total lack of regard for best-laid plans, is just what I needed.

Well, that and about sixteen hours of make-up sleep tonight. I mean, really.

Insomnia e-card

10Jul

The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Bassetts

I don’t know if it’s because I so adored the book Heidi as a girl…

Running up the mountain

…or because the closest thing to a hill in my hometown was the highway Mixmaster…

Alpine wildflowers

…or because I was a mountain goat in another life…

Singing and hiking

…or because my soul was set to a frequency that comes through best at high altitudes…

The view from our hotel - Evening clouds

…but being here, in the Italian Alps, this week…

Mountain picnic

…with THIS as my waking view…

The view from our hotel - First glimpse

…is filling parts of me I didn’t even know were empty.

We four

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”
– Mary Oliver

P.S. – You can follow our daily shenanigans over on Instagram (@bethany_bassett) if you’re so inclined!

P.P.S. – Credit for this post’s awesome and very accurate title goes to Dan. I’m adopting it as our vacation motto.

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